In order to avoid linguistic disasters when we create brand and product names, we think about how they will travel—across different consumers and even across continents. We make sure they translate appropriately in all the languages that exist in targeted markets. But sometimes, even when you manage to tackle obvious linguistic disasters (no need to remind you of the Nova or Mondelez mishaps, right?), the subtlest pitfalls still lie in cultural savvy. Cultural fluency is key to relevant branding.
Let me give you a personal example.
As a non-English native speaker and semiotician, I am constantly learning, observing, searching, studying, and dissecting new words and expressions that not only expand my vocabulary, but also uncover hidden meanings in my adopted culture.
Everybody knows the importance of idioms when learning a new language. Idioms are your way into a culture; colloquialisms are your linguistic passport. I came from France to New York City seven years ago with the level of English you get out of schoolbooks. But as I was working my way up in my new linguistic environment, I knew I finally got street cred the day I heard myself commenting on my colleague’s work: “It’s awesome!” No more “zees eez hinteresting” or “zat eez not bad.” It was awesome. Now that I was seamlessly using this little trivial word, I thought I was on the right path to master the American culture and English language. But I realized my street cred was only relevant where I gained it. When I relocated to London a few years later, things were not “awesome.” They were “lovely.” No more awe, but love right away. Love from everybody: men and women, youth and less youthful, taxi drivers and the Queen. There, I was experiencing what George Bernard Shaw once said: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
Semiotics helps uncover the hidden meaning behind language in different cultures and environments. When looking at “awesome” versus “lovely”, it helps to identify the cultural gap between the use of each word. The intent is the same⎯to express excitement⎯but the cultural meaning is different.
Etymologically, “awesome” means something impressive and/or inspiring. Pronounced in the US, the first syllable is usually heavily accentuated, coming directly from the back of the throat, like an onomatopoeic, emphatic, liberating sound for satisfaction: “awwww.” Then the teeth happily hiss the “s”, and the “m” nasally relieves the intensity of the word. From throat to nose, “awesome” is a multisensory adjective, and linguistics meets culture in the way Americans experience it: “awesome” acts like a rallying cry that reflects all the genuine enthusiasm that Americans can express spontaneously. Now across the pond, the origins of “lovely” are tightly linked to affection and desire. Embraced by British people, the word itself is a delectation: the alliteration of the “l” makes it a sensorial and delicate vessel to express enjoyment, and the final open “y” closes in a flight of lyricism. Here too, the content joins the form in a physical execution that fits the culture: the emotion is contained in the intimacy of the word, like a poem, which ties into the values that British culture is about⎯courtesy, politeness and self-control.
Now back to not-so-candid naming faux-pas.
I won’t go into such a detailed analysis of the following, but what could American consumers think they’re getting when they order Saag’s British Bangers (pardon my French) on Amazon? And on the other hand, what do you think comes to mind when a British audience hears about Wet Willies, an Alaskan car-wash company offering two different packages (pun unintended): the Little Willie and Big Willie?
Language is fantastique.
Related content: 5 Naming Pitfalls To Avoid